The beauty of Belize does not end at her borders, and on occasion we find ourselves venturing beyond our mother land to explore our remarkable neighbors. For those who prefer to spend their time at their destination, rather than half of it traveling by land, Tropic Air has made getting there much easier. With air service from Belize City to some of the key regions of interest such as Roatan Honduras, Flores Guatemala and Cancun Mexico, last March Tropic added to their destination carte du jour direct flights to Merida Mexico. Needless to say this has been a popular addition and twice now I have ventured to the ancient capital of the Yucatan.
Literally built from the ruins of the Maya they dominated, Spanish conquistadors named the city after their homeland in Spain. Known as the “White City” due to its cleanliness and limestone structures, the town core boasts charming cobble stone streets, old-world plazas, cathedrals, sidewalk cafes and museums where you can spend days just walking the streets. Expanding from the heart of the city the contemporary fringe offers grand shopping malls, country clubs, modern architecture and world class medical institutions.
On any given day one of the safest cities in Mexico is worthy of exploring, but add this colonial backdrop to an annual festival or celebration and you are truly in for an amazing cultural experience.
Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
Dia de los Muertos is observed throughout Mexico where the day is a public holiday. In Mexico the tradition is a mixture of Catholic beliefs with the religions of indigenous Mexican people and focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. Prior to Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the celebration took place at the beginning of summer.
It was moved to October 31, November 1 and November 2 to coincide with the Roman Catholic Triduum festival of Allhallowtide: All Hallows’ Eve, Hallowmas, and All Souls’ Day. Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars called ofrendas, honoring the deceased using, marigolds, the favorite foods and beverages of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts. Visitors also leave possessions of the deceased at the graves.
A mixture of Aztec and European symbolism explains the meaning of Dia de los Muertos face painting designs. The most common design is the “sugar skull” face painting to resemble a skull. For people not familiar with Latin American culture and the celebration this might seem strange and even scary. However, the skull has a uniquely positive meaning in Dia de los Muertos, very different from the skeletons and ghosts of Halloween.
In Mexico, the Aztec culture believed life on earth to be something of an illusion – death was a positive step forward into a higher level of conscience. For the Aztecs skulls were a positive symbol, not only of death but also of rebirth. The meaning of face-painting is not only to remember the dead, but also to overcome the fear of death and celebrate life!
During the day of October 31st many of the centrally located parks hosted dozens of altar tables erected to remember loved ones who had passed. That evening El Paseo de Las Ánimas (Passage of the Souls) procession began at the Cementerio General, passed through the central part of the city and ended at the Arches of San Juan. Adorned in classic Mestizo attire to wild costumes and skeletal face paintings, hundreds of people made up the procession.
Throughout the weekend the local parks were alive with Dia de los Muertos festivities. Music, entertainment, dancers and delicious cultural food were in abundance and hundreds of Mexicans and tourists came out to enjoy the weekend celebration.
In 2008 the tradition was inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and once you have experienced the three days of this celebration it is easy to understand its cultural significance.
Merida is memorable any time of the year, but after experiencing Dia de los Muertos there I can’t imagine how fun CHRISTMAS could be there….hmmm, now there’s an idea!